By Aaron C. Davis and Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 9, 2008
A video camera that Prince George's County jail guards were required to use in June as they rushed into the cell of an unconscious inmate accused of killing a police officer failed to record the crucial minutes when the guards arrived and moved his body, according to confidential jail reports.
The reports -- handwritten statements signed by guards, supervisors and jail nurses -- say the camera malfunctioned and did not capture the first five minutes when a team of guards entered Ronnie White's cell, began CPR and called 911.
The camera did not begin recording until after White, 19, was removed on a stretcher and his cell was ordered sealed shut, according to the reports.
Had it functioned, the camera might have created an objective record of the positioning of White's body and the contents of his cell, both of which factored into the state medical examiner's ruling that his death was a homicide.
The medical examiner said White was strangled with a sheet, a towel or the "crux of the elbow." An attorney for the guards' union has said that the inmate hanged himself with a sheet.
For reasons involving liability, the team of guards that responds to emergencies at the county jail is supposed to use the hand-held camera each time it enters a cell, jail spokeswoman Vicki D. Duncan said. She said the camera sometimes malfunctions.
Bobby Henry, an attorney for White's family, said the jail employees' assertion that the camera malfunctioned shows that the "integrity of the system has been seriously compromised."
State police, the FBI and State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, all of whom are investigating White's death, declined to comment on the failure to record the entry and the minutes that followed.
White was at the jail for just over 36 hours, charged with first-degree murder in the death of Cpl. Richard S. Findley. Police alleged that White ran Findley down while driving a stolen truck June 27.
Vernon Herron, the county's director of public safety, said he was unaware of the reports that the camera malfunctioned. He said that, in response to White's death, the county plans to install cameras that will record activity in all areas where inmates are housed and transported.
The Washington Post reviewed 13 statements given to internal investigators at the jail on the day of White's death, including those from two guards said to be at the center of the investigation into White's death. The language of the reports is, in many cases, similar.
"This incident was partially videotaped due to malfunction," one guard wrote. "This incident was partially recorded due to a camera malfunction," wrote another. Still another wrote, "Due to camera malfunction this incident was partially recorded."
The absence of a video recording leaves investigators without evidence that might have been useful in assessing the claims of Cpl. Anthony McIntosh and Cpl. Ramon Davis, two guards assigned to the maximum-security unit where White died June 29. County officials placed the two on leave in September, saying, without publicly naming them, that they were "the focus" of the police investigation.
Several days after White's death, McIntosh told investigators that he was the first to find White and that the inmate was hanging by a bedsheet. McIntosh said he panicked, pulled the inmate down and left him on the cell floor, sources have said.
On the day of White's death, before the state police and FBI were involved, Davis told county police there was a sheet in the cell, according to a source familiar with his statement.
Yet the two guards' June 29 statements to internal jail investigators make no mention of a sheet. And despite what he later told police, McIntosh wrote that he was summoned to the cell only after Davis found White unresponsive.
McIntosh's attorney did not respond to a message seeking comment. An attorney for Davis declined to comment on the discrepancy between his client's two statements.
Immediately after White's death, Col. Gregory O. Harris, deputy director of operations for the county Corrections Department, told reporters that the inmate was not allowed to have a bedsheet or any ropelike material.
Investigators, however, have photographs of a sheet found in White's cell hours after his death, according to two people who have seen them. The sources, like others quoted in this report, spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigations are ongoing.
Harris did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Duncan declined to comment on his statement that there was no sheet because the investigation is ongoing.
The presence of a sheet does not in itself prove homicide or suicide; a sheet could have been used in either.
But George Harper, Davis's attorney, said he thinks the presence of a bedsheet, along with no evidence of a struggle, points to suicide. "He has nothing to hide, and he has tried to hide nothing," Harper said of his client.
Harper said his client found White slumped on the ground, a bedsheet draped loosely around his shoulders and neck -- potentially, he said, in the position McIntosh now claims to have left him in earlier.
In an interview, Harper offered the most detailed account to date of his client's actions in the hours before White's death. He said Davis had been at the jail all night, working a shift from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. and then staying on to work overtime from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. in the unit where White was held.
Davis took a meal break at 9:30 a.m., Harper said. During the hour Davis was away, McIntosh was the lone corrections officer roaming the unit, he said. Harper said Davis returned at 10:30 a.m., and he and McIntosh began distributing food to inmates in the cellblock. McIntosh took the cellblock's top tier, and Davis took the ground level, where White was being held in cell 102.
When Davis found White unresponsive, he called to McIntosh, Harper said. McIntosh rushed downstairs, he said.
In his statement to jail investigators, Davis said he saw White "sitting on his cell floor in an upright position." McIntosh, too, described White as "sitting on the floor by the bed in an upright position, appearing to be unresponsive."
"I lightly tapped det. White in the chest area with my hand to check for any responsiveness," McIntosh wrote, using shorthand for detainee. "There was not any movement from det. White."
A nurse who arrived moments later wrote in her statement that White was sitting on the floor, leaning against a toilet, "with his head slumping to his chest area, saliva coming from his mouth." Guards used a defibrillator to attempt to resuscitate him, she wrote.
White was loaded onto an ambulance, and a corrections officer rode with him to a local hospital. The officer wrote that, following jail protocol, he cuffed White's left foot and left wrist to the stretcher as paramedics tried to revive him, without success. White, he wrote, "arrived dead."